There is a desire among soccer fans to understand why the USMNT is “lagging” behind other nations. “We have great facilities and coaches. Why are we still behind other nations that are much smaller and less equipped?” A colleague asked me to respond to this perspective which I’m happy to do but as we begin, remember that this is not a problem of simple math where 2+2=4. This is an equation of multivariable calculus. The solution is not as simple as everyone would like for it to be but it is there nonetheless.
The French Hockey Variable – If you were to research all of the characteristics of the best hockey players in the world, you would most likely find that a large percentage of them speak French. Therefore any hockey club that is looking to build a superior program should teach their players French. Obviously this is a ridiculous idea. However underlying the concept is a nugget of truth that needs to be realized. French is not the common denominator but it is an indicator. The indication is that a large number of the best hockey players come from French speaking Canada. The French is irrelevant but what is extremely relevant is the cultural implications. These players come from a place where success in that particular sport is nurtured and encouraged. The love for the sport is felt through their entire existence.
Largely the United States is still learning French. We are hoping that by playing Frankenstein’s Monster with soccer that national team results can meet the expectations of the few hardcore fans. Unfortunately that is not likely to work. Cultural shifts take a long time especially in a nation as large and diverse as the US. A small nation like Iceland has a much better chance of achieving a cultural overhaul that produces notable results on the international stage. Turning a motorboat is easier than turning an ocean liner. The United States will eventually hit a “tipping point” where an avalanche of cultural practices will reap benefits at the highest level. Again my prediction is 2026 but let’s keep moving on those variables.
The Distraction Variable – Unfortunately many people within the system of soccer are more interested in personal gain rather than altruistic motives for the improvement of the sport. An Icelandic youth player is probably separated from a national team player by a few degrees. So the dream of playing for the national team is real. Also the meaning of playing for the national team is potent with pride because basically everyone in the country cares. Kids in the US have so many more “shiny objects” to distract them before the USMNT is even a consideration. Elite teams, scholarships, academies, etc. are a confusing system of hoops that have some meaning but are not particularly a path leading to the USMNT or the betterment of soccer in this country. Since the system is difficult to decipher, kids and parents need to rely upon people who know the game. Since solidarity payments are not made to developmental clubs, the motivation for lower level clubs is to gain status by keeping talent rather than selling it up the pyramid. This system is changing slowly and many of the “fākademies” are being revealed as nothing more than profit centers rather than rungs on the soccer ladder. Once parents and players can see a direct path from the youth to professional game, the inflation of youth soccer will level off.
The En Vogue Variable – Although soccer is gaining popularity overall, Major League Soccer is far behind the upward trajectory of the sport. There are many reasons for this but eventually they need to break down. At one point, the Serie A was the most popular league in the world. At the moment, the English Premier League holds that moniker. In the future, MLS needs to hit that level and I believe that it will. However before it can, the league needs for soccer fans in the US to embrace it. Lack of great players, lack of history, lack of American superstars, and all of the other excuses that fans give for not supporting this league will eventually fade away. At that point, MLS will become like Marvel. Once something becomes popular then everyone “was always a fan.”
The Generation Variable – One or more of these variables could tip and cause the avalanche that brings the results that hardcore soccer fans want. This variable could have the strongest influence but also would be the hardest to track. My father didn’t play soccer. I started that tradition in my family. So I refer to myself as a first generation soccer player. My son now plays which makes him second generation. He is more educated about the game than I was at his age. The thing about a generational impact is that it is exponential growth. A player has three kids and that has potential of 3X growth. Since the US flirted with soccer throughout the 1900’s and especially in the 1970’s, it’s hard to pinpoint the generational effect. However it exists and if it hits at the right time with some of these other variables, THE WORLD WON’T KNOW WHAT HIT THEM!
Soccer in the US is not lagging behind other countries any more than we are lagging behind in consumption of chocolate. We ranked 8th in that statistic in 2019. Switzerland led the way by doubling our per capita consumption. There are some things that are difficult to determine about the US. One that I am never in doubt about is that we will find a way to achieve whatever we deem important. At some point, we’ll decide that soccer is important and this perceived lag will be history.
USMNT World Cup Champs 2026!